Orioles 3, Yankees 1

The New York Yankees were losing again when veteran right-hander Kevin Brown came into the team's clubhouse after the sixth inning, steaming and snorting with frustration. Up the coast, the Boston Red Sox were winning again, with the grip around the Yankees' necks growing tighter. Brown was hurting again, the new pain in his knee and arm blending into the other pains around his body.

If Brown was looking for something to make him and his teammates forget those things, he certainly accomplished that. But now Brown and the Yankees have another far more ominous concern, after the notoriously high-strung and surly right-hander punched a wall out of frustration, breaking his left (non-throwing) hand and plunging the Yankees' season further into turmoil.

"There's more to this game than one person," said Yankees Manager Joe Torre, doing little to hide the anger in his voice. "We rely on him a great deal. It's not something that's helping the team, obviously. . . . It's unexpected and uncalled for."

The Yankees had needed all of 18 agonizing days to see what had once been a 101/2-game division lead reduced by eight games. But Friday night's events felt like the equivalent of losing it all at once.

The news of Brown's injury made its way around the Yankees' clubhouse following their 3-1 loss to the Baltimore Orioles in front of 44,148 at Yankee Stadium. Combined with the Boston Red Sox' 2-0 win at home against Texas, the Yankees' lead in the American League East was reduced to only 21/2 games, with six head-to-head games between the Yankees and Red Sox still to come this month.

"It was," Torre said, "a bad night."

Although Brown, who was diagnosed with fractures to the third and fifth metacarpal bones in his left hand, said he intends to wear a splint and keep pitching, it is likely he will miss at least some time this month, as the Yankees attempt to hold off Boston and avoid completing what would be the biggest collapse in franchise history. Brown will be seen by a hand specialist on Saturday.

"It's a major issue we're dealing with now that we shouldn't be dealing with," said General Manager Brian Cashman, who added the team is considering disciplinary action against Brown. "We're very disappointed and concerned."

Brown had just completed the sixth inning by getting Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro to ground into an inning-ending double play. One batter earlier, Orioles shortstop Miguel Tejada had singled up the middle to drive in the Orioles' third run -- Tejada's major league-leading 122nd RBI -- which Brown had foolishly tried to stop with his bare hand, the ball catching him flush on the forearm.

An inning before that, Brown had wrenched his knee while covering the bag on a grounder to first. He was prepared to pitch through both injuries, but when he entered the Yankees' clubhouse between innings, Brown said, he could no longer control the frustration.

"I let it boil over, and I did something stupid," Brown said. "I owe my teammates an apology. . . . I just pray that my stupidity doesn't hurt the team."

Despite all the millions invested in their rotation, there was little doubt even before Brown's injury that the Yankees' starting staff (with its 4.98 ERA) is the team's most glaring weakness -- which is why Brown's performance this month was so critical. The Yankees wanted him on the mound in Game 1 of the Division Series, but he has been getting outpitched by Orlando Hernandez for weeks now. And now this.

Asked what the injury means for Brown's immediate future, Torre said, "It means he's not going to be [in the rotation] for a period of time." Asked if he thought it might be season-ending, Torre said, "I have no clue."

For now at least, Brown's turn in the rotation likely will be assumed by one of two exiled starters currently toiling in the Yankees' bullpen, Esteban Loaiza or Tanyon Sturtze.

While the streaking Red Sox have been at home fending off contending teams such as Anaheim, Texas and Oakland, the Yankees are in the midst of 24 straight games against teams with losing records -- which makes their tepid response to Boston's strong charge all the more disturbing.

Friday night's loss, in which Brown was decidedly outpitched by Orioles right-hander Rodrigo Lopez, was only the Yankees' third in 12 games this season against their favorite punching bags.

The Orioles, meantime, have won five straight games since snapping a 12-game losing streak. Lopez (11-8), making his third start on the team's marathon four-city, 13-game road trip, pitched brilliantly after a rocky first inning, failing to allow another base runner past first base until the eighth inning and striking out seven.

After Lopez was pulled two batters into the eighth, right-hander Jason Grimsley entered for the Orioles and retired Derek Jeter and Gary Sheffield on two pitches to end the inning. Then, closer Jorge Julio came on in the ninth, striking out Alex Rodriguez, Hideki Matsui and Jorge Posada in order for his 20th save.

Orioles Note: Catcher Javy Lopez was scratched before the game because of stiffness in his neck and was replaced by Geronimo Gil. It was the third game Lopez has missed on this road trip due to the neck injury.

Lopez still did not enter after Manager Lee Mazzilli used David Segui to pinch-hit for Gil in the seventh, with third-stringer Robert Machado entering instead.

Yankees' Kevin Brown can't control himself; Brown punched a clubhouse wall, breaking his left hand. His season may be over.